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Understanding Sepsis: Prevention, Treatment, and Prevalence

Medically Approved by Dr. Edward Salko

Table of Contents

photo wife visiting her ill husband

With any type of infection, healthcare providers would urge you to seek immediate medical intervention as soon as possible. Otherwise, you risk developing sepsis, a life-threatening immune response to infection that could lead to organ dysfunction and eventually death. Below, we discuss what sepsis is, how to prevent and treat it, along with its prevalence and other related facts. 

Pro tip: Sepsis results from severe infection, which can be detected through blood tests, like the complete blood count (CBC). A CBC is taken for diagnosing certain diseases or as part of a routine checkup. 

What Is Sepsis? 

Sepsis or septicemia is a severe medical condition wherein the immune system’s response to infection damages the body’s tissues. As a result, it disrupts organ function, eventually leading to a fatal complete failure. 

The occurrence of sepsis can be linked directly to any type of infection that ranges from simple cuts to pneumonia and urinary tract infection (UTI). 

Keep in mind that not all infections lead to sepsis. Those treated accordingly and promptly are less life-threatening and often result in speedy recovery. However, infections that are neglected and not diagnosed on time can trigger sepsis following a complex immune system mechanism. 

What happens during sepsis?

At the onset of an infection, the immune system releases white blood cells to fight off the pathogens. Suppose the immune response goes dramatically drastic due to the overwhelming number of pathogens or the severity of the infection. In that case, it triggers the immune system to work double, damaging the tissues in the process through widespread inflammation. 

As sepsis persists, the body can undergo a septic shock, which brings the blood pressure to a dangerously low level, the vital organs start to fail, and respiration begins to slow down. 

Sepsis Diagnosis

The diagnosis of sepsis requires a combination of clinical evaluation, laboratory tests, and imaging studies. The doctor will assess the patient’s symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical examination to determine if sepsis is present. 

Blood tests, such as a complete blood count (CBC) and blood cultures, are commonly used to identify the presence of infection and determine the severity of sepsis. Imaging tests, like X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans, may also be ordered to further diagnose the infection and assess the extent of damage to the organs. 

Doctors can use these diagnostic tests to evaluate a patient’s response to therapy and determine the appropriate treatment course.

The severity of organ dysfunction determines the stage of sepsis. An assessment of organ dysfunction and the patient’s prognosis may be performed by using a Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (SOFA) score or a quick SOFA (qSOFA) score.

Sepsis Treatment 

A medical emergency such as sepsis requires immediate treatment. During treatment, the primary goals are to control infection, stabilize vital signs, and support organ function, which can be done through the following:

  1. Antibiotics 

Broad-spectrum antibiotics are administered intravenously to target the infection and prevent its spread. Your doctor will prescribe the appropriate antibiotic and dosage based on the microbe causing the infection.  

  1. Intravenous fluids

Fluids are given intravenously to maintain blood pressure and prevent dehydration. As your immune system fights off the pathogen, some aspects of your health can become compromised. Thus, IV fluids are essential to ensure stabilization.

  1. Vasopressors 

Vasopressors may be used to raise blood pressure and improve blood flow to vital organs in cases of severe septic shock.

  1. Oxygen therapy

Supplemental oxygen may be administered if the patient is experiencing respiratory distress. This is common among patients who develop pulmonary infections. 

  1. Surgery 

In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the source of the infection, such as an abscess or infected tissue. For example, if the infection started in a toe or leg. In that case, some instances require the complete removal of the focal area of infection to prevent the further spread of the condition and the likelihood of a septic shock.

  1. Supportive care

Patients with sepsis often require intensive care and close monitoring. Supportive care may include measures to manage pain, provide nutrition, and prevent complications.

Sepsis Prevention

side view of person washing hands in the sink

Anyone can be susceptible to infection. However, those with a compromised immune system, the elders, children, and people at risk of chronic disorders should take extra precautions against infections. The following are some of the practical ways you can do to keep yourself safe from sepsis.

  1. Handwashing

Hygiene is an essential component of infection prevention, especially when it comes to pathogens that take the oral route. Make sure to wash your hands properly with lukewarm water and soap to get rid of microbes. 

  1. Wound care

Regardless of your wound size, don’t ignore cleaning it with running water as soon as possible. You can dab an alcohol-free wipe, but try to avoid putting a strong antiseptic agent on the wound as it could damage the tissues. 

  1. Vaccinations

Some infections can be prevented or easily treated if the person has been vaccinated against them. One example is influenza, which can be easily managed with flu shots. The immune cells will recognize the causative microbe and can perform the proper defense with precision and without causing drastic damage to the healthy cells.

  1. Symptoms Awareness

It’s vital to detect symptoms of sepsis, especially if you are well aware of an ongoing infection. The Sepsis Alliance came up with TIME to easily remember what conditions you should watch out for. It stands for:

  • Temperature: Your temperature is higher or lower than the normal level. 
  • Infection: You exhibit signs of infection based on the organ affected. For example, if it involves the lungs, you may notice shortness of breath and rapid heart rate. 
  • Mental Decline: You experience brain fogginess, confusion, and sleeping difficulties.
  • Extremely Ill: You observe fatigue, loss of appetite, pain, and discomfort.

Prevalence and Facts About Sepsis 

Awareness of sepsis has long been promoted to emphasize its seriousness and the need for early medical intervention. In fact, every September, many organizations, including the Sepsis Alliance, conduct several activities to discuss sepsis and its prevention. It’s even more important to do so, considering the prevalence of sepsis. 

Below are valuable data to learn more about sepsis. 

  1. In the US, sepsis claims 350,000 lives every year among American adults and 6,800 children. It is also the primary cause of in-hospital death and hospitalization readmission. (Source: 2023 Sepsis Alliance)

The figures show that sepsis has a higher mortality rate than chronic and severe conditions like breast cancer and prostate cancer. This goes to show the importance of treating infections before sepsis develops. Otherwise, your chances of survival go downward – not to mention the economic impact on the patient and hospital alike. 

  1. Half of the patients who survive sepsis suffer from the physical and psychological effects of the condition. (Source: World Sepsis Day)

In some cases, a patient with kidney failure due to sepsis has to undergo permanent dialysis or a kidney transplant. Those with brain function affected by sepsis experience memory problems and difficulty concentrating. 

Some patients also needed to undergo surgical removal of limbs, mainly if the infection originated from such areas. Overall, the quality of life after sepsis drastically lowers, which inevitably leads to a shorter lifespan. 

  1. A recent study published in PLOS Medicine highlights that the key factor in sepsis-related death among newborns is the loss of antibiotic effectiveness. (Source: PLOS Medicine)

Neonatal sepsis involving newborns stems from untreated bacterial infections. Unfortunately, according to the study mentioned above, many bacterial pathogens (disease-causing bacteria) that typically cause the infection have grown resistant to the typical antibiotics given during treatment. 

However, bacterial resistance is expected to worsen in the coming years, with an estimated fatality of 5.2 million people in the Western Pacific Region alone by 2030. This emphasizes the importance of early detection to ensure treatment remains effective. 

Pro tip: A newborn’s health may depend on the mother’s own health status throughout the pregnancy. Read our guide on how to prevent gestational complications to keep you and your baby’s health at an optimum state:

  1. A 2022 study showed the varied mortality rates between different types of infections across 3,958 patients with sepsis. Pulmonary infections accounted for 19.27% of sepsis deaths, followed by abdominal infections at 18.83% and renal infections at 12.81%. (Source: Frontiers in Medicine)

The data from the study shows the likelihood of death based on infection type, which provides insights into the severity of a localized infection and the degree of attention you need to pay immediately after the symptoms occur. 

Additionally, although bacterial infection, in general, commonly causes sepsis, viral and fungal infections can also trigger the condition. For example, COVID-19, a pulmonary viral infection, leads to septic shock that contributes to its notorious fatality.  

  1. Sepsis can be considered a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. (Source: Journal of American Heart Association)

People who have been hospitalized due to sepsis and have a family history of heart disease should be more cautious about their heart health. This study, which was published in early 2023, involved over 2 million patients who survived hospitalization, 35.8% of whom experienced sepsis. 

The data generated showed that patients who survived sepsis have a higher risk of getting hospitalized again due to cardiovascular conditions, among other health conditions. This suggests persistent preventive measures against heart failure must be consciously applied post-hospitalization.

Pro tip: A good way to monitor your heart health is to take the necessary blood tests to evaluate your risks for cardiovascular diseases. It’s also helpful to know which diseases are associated with heart problems

Frequently Asked Questions

photo mature doctor communicating with her patient while analyzing his medical data at the clinic

How quickly does sepsis kill?

If the sepsis gets worse and the patient undergoes a septic shock, the patient can succumb to death within 12 to 14 hours. 

Can a UTI cause sepsis?

Yes, a urinary tract infection or UTI can lead to sepsis if not treated promptly. It can cause severe damage to the kidneys, urethra, and bladder.  

Is sepsis for life?

Sepsis can be treated when a patient is hospitalized. However, in some cases, the impact of post-sepsis treatment can become lifelong. For example, it can cause permanent damage to the kidneys, especially if the root cause of sepsis is a UTI, which requires steady dialysis.

The Bottom Line

Sepsis is an alarming condition that should be prevented at all costs. In doing so, it’s vital to never ignore an infection, regardless of how minor you may think it is. If symptoms such as fever, breathing difficulties, disorientation, rapid heartbeat, and slurred speech occur, make sure to seek immediate medical attention.

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